Blackberry Passport (Non AT&T version) – An abject failure in design

I preface this by saying that there is now a special version of the Passport that appears to address some of the issues that I’ve seen, but that doesn’t help those who have the original.

I went into the Passport not knowing what it was. I had a project that required a hardware keyboard, and those are extremely difficult to find nowadays. When I first opened the box, I laughed until tears came to my eyes. Pictures do not do it justice, you have to hold it in your hands to understand the state of confusion that it puts your mind into. I’ve seen a lot of phone designs in my time, and this is….something. I feel like I should stick it in the ground and worship it like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This thing is massive. It still fits in my jean pockets, but you know damn well it’s there.

The shape is a radical departure from any that I’ve seen before it. It even includes a booklet for justifying itself, which is ultimately confusing for me. I realize they styled it after an actual passport in terms of dimensions, but in my frequent travels my actual passport has been bent due to the fit in my pants pocket.

Physically and ergonomically, it is a design that does not make sense. One of the most distressing moments I have ever experienced with any device is opening the door to place the SIM card in. It is extremely difficult to open, and I was quite concerned that I would break the door in the process of trying to open the infernal thing.

This is a phone not meant for pants and especially not for jeans. In jeans, it’s an extremely tight fit and you always know it’s there both due to the size and the thing is the weight of a small brick. Basically, any sort of top-loading pants will not be a pleasant time for you. In dress pants as well, you know it’s there and so does everyone because there’s a huge bulge in your pants (besides the normal one if you’re a guy). Simply put, it has to be in a jacket pocket. In a suit (at least for me), the corner sticks out by the arm, but it’s not too noticeable.  You definitely notice the corners, both in pocket and in hand.

You cannot type one-handed. It’s somewhat possible to browse the internet one-handed, so long as you don’t have to reach all the way across. I would not, however, recommend trying to drink from a latte while using it one-handed. Too much risk. The power button location on the top bothers me, as I’ve been close to dropping it a couple times trying to press the button one-handed. As an odd note, the default camera picture format is a square (though it can be changed). Not sure how I feel about that one yet.

It has the same annoyances that the Z10 has for me in that the lock screen doesn’t update the read emails. For example, if I read an email in Outlook, it still shows as unread on the Passport. This wasn’t the case in general with the iPhone (something seems to have changed around iOS 8, in theory fixed in 8.2), and it’s more problematic as the notification light flashes until I actually look at the Passport. It’s really a pet peeve of mine, and for a company so focused on email it’s a large oversight. There may have been so enhancements in the meantime, as the function appears to work intermittently.

For gesture controls, since the strip isn’t as wide between the keyboard and the actual screen as it was on the Z10, the swipe up gesture is a lot more difficult to control. I’m constantly overshooting the exact distance required to see just the lock screen as opposed to trying to unlock the device. Exchange requires a PIN, so that’s where the problem arises. I want to glance at the information, but it’s covered completely by the PIN unlock prompt. I can do just the lock screen by pressing the power button, it’s placement is so awkward (as I’ve said before) it’s just not convenient.

The keyboard is pretty awkward for me to use, especially reaching the “P” in the upper right corner. Since it’s a shifted QWERTY layout (for example, “A” is directly below “Q”, backspace is below “P”, and Enter is below backspace), I have trouble with some muscle memory as I have to look down sometimes to know where things are, and I think I like the Z10’s keyboard better so far. I’m also getting a weird cramp in the knuckle of my thumb, so I think I need to change how I hold the device (I want to hold it with eight fingers behind the back). There just doesn’t seem to be a good way of holding the device with a firm grip if you have to type for a long time, and I imagine the classic Blackberrys didn’t have this problem. What’s interesting is depending on certain circumstances (if you press the @123 onscreen button), the onscreen keyboard can take up over a third of the display.

It has no shift inherently, or any punctuation keys, those have to be displayed on the screen. Granted, I’ve never been a physical keyboard sort of person. The keyboard also isn’t very tall, and it being touch sensitive isn’t useful unless you turn the device sideways and read that way. Scrolling through emails and websites in portrait (normal phone orientation) is a real pain in the ass, and there should be a setting to adjust/increase the distance traveled. I tend to swipe too far and that sends either a gesture of bringing up the extended keyboard or opening something I didn’t want to. It’s basically unusable when you hold it normally. When you hold it sideways, it holds some utility, but it still feels awkward. If you’re holding it sideways and need to type something, you have to rotate the phone BACK into the normal orientation to type. Another downside is that you lose the predictive keyboard that the Z10 has. While I didn’t use it very often, it had a neat feature where the text prediction was tied to a letter. On the Z10, let’s say you’re wanting to type the word “interesting”. For me, when I type in “in” just above the “T” on the keyboard “Interesting” appears. When you swipe up from that letter, it completes the word. While I didn’t use the feature that often as my eyes were looking at what I had already typed, it is an interesting feature and I would rather have it than not. With the Passport, you get a predictive entry above the screen keyboard extension which is par for the mobile device course. Minor nitpick for me: the keyboard backlighting is uneven in colour and intensity as well as the O (and the Q) using sideways 0’s.

I’m seeing an odd issue with Docs To Go, where when you reenter the document from the switching screen or the lock screen it freezes up. It shows the cursor, but it won’t let you type anything in at all. It appears to be limited to that app as the Hub doesn’t do the same thing, just lets you type in straight away. In terms of screen size, I haven’t found any applications so far that are expecting a particular orientation, though I’ve seen at least one looking a little odd. I’ve also had emails that wouldn’t wrap properly, so the text actually drifts offscreen so I have to zoom out in order to see the whole sentences. I’ve really yet to see a benefit to the screen orientation (some with the width), and I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if they had ditched the physical keyboard and allocated the space to more display. Maps still looks pretty bad, with a lot of texture pop-in where it’s missing completely, then it loads the low-res version and then eventually the higher-res shows up. I’ve had it take a couple of seconds just to show.

The summary of it is this so far: this is a poor design. The keyboard is uncomfortable for me to type on (causes pain, still trying to figure out a better way to do it), the apps are still problematic even with Amazon availability built-in, the square screen conveys no actual benefits, and the weight and dimensions means this is a device that you want to leave behind as soon as you’re done with work.  In my experience It doesn’t address the shortcomings of the platform, which is the real inherent limitation.  One can only hope that the AT&T version addresses at least some of these issues, which it appears it may have.


BlackBerry: The quest for an RMA

Somewhere in textbooks, my experience with BlackBerry should be included in how a major corporation can fail so drastically in customer service.  What began as a crackling sound around the battery quickly became a test of patience.  Many times I had the desire to just smash the device to be done with it once and for all, but cooler heads prevailed each time.  It was a process that started April 23rd, and finally ended on August 8th.  If you’re curious, that’s a total of 108 days or over three months for one single RMA.  When I contacted Blackberry, I ended up speaking with them over the phone who confirmed the phone should be sent in for service.

I provided the phone details, and there appeared to be an issue somehow with the identifying number (PIN).  This remained quite curious, as the mobile was purchased from none other than BlackBerry itself.  I was told that for some reason my device was not showing on the Shop BlackBerry Catalog (though I was never told what that was), and assured that it would take no more than five business days.  Foolishly, I believed it.  Five business days passed without any word.  When I reached out to the customer service representative, I was told there was an IT issue and would be contacted as soon as possible.  A week and a half goes by without any word.  When I reached out again, he told me there were no updates.  Could I receive some sort of compensation for being without a working phone, I asked.  The answer was of course not, and the assurance was given that the best possible work was being done.  At the two month point, I asked to speak to someone else in order to escalate the issue.  I was told no.  I was also told that I could not be shipped a replacement in advance.  In desperation, I reached out to the BlackBerryHelp account on Twitter, who told me they would not provide any assistance.

Two and a half months into the ordeal, I received an email thanking me for my purchase of a Porsche Design BlackBerry.  I was so excited!  I was actually going to be compensated for my months of frustration with a very nice phone!  I checked when it was supposed to arrive, and it was anticipated to arrive on my birthday.  Happy birthday to me!  My birthday came, and the box dutifully arrived.  I opened it to find a fancy box.  I opened the box to find it completely empty.  If you can imagine my disappointment.  It didn’t quite ruin my birthday by itself, but it was an icing to the shit cake that it was.  The customer representative’s response once I contacted them to ask?  “Please disregard” was the gist of it.  What was even better was that the fancy box that I received that I was to use for the Z10 wouldn’t fit it, because it was meant for a different phone.  I had to wait for them to ship the proper box, and part of it was damaged in shipping.  Essentially, I had to combine the two boxes in order to get one working box.  What’s even more amusing for me is that upon receiving the shipping documents, the customer service didn’t even take down my name correctly when the whole process started.  I shipped my device and received a different one back with the wrong name.  I cannot think of a single process that the company performed that was done correctly and with good customer management.

In the end, did I receive a working BlackBerry?  Heck if I know.  Because of the long wait, I replaced the phone a long time ago with a different manufacturer.  Surprisingly, I had an issue with the phone from a different manufacturer, and I still got it through the RMA process and back before BlackBerry even had shipped anything.  If anyone asks me my opinion of BlackBerry, I would tell them to stay far, far away.  But then again, no one ever talks about BlackBerry to begin with.

This is why you’re losing money, HTC

HTC, you guys are assholes.  You don’t get what is important to people.  I want to be able to, at a glance, determine why the hell your phone has vibrated and that damn light will not stop blinking on the lock screen.  Is it important?  Is it a meeting notice?  An important work email?  Facebook message?  I want to know within a few seconds whether it’s something worth looking at, and forget about it if it’s not.

It was bad enough with your default Sense 5.0.  The Productivity option on the lock screen could only display certain things, but I could bypass that by using a widget.  Now, with the update, you not only remove the ability to display calendar notifications and emails, the two very most important things for me to access on a work phone, you now hide the widget on a separate page, so I have to swipe just in the proper position to even see the widget that’s actually telling me useful information like those fucking emails and calendar notifications.

The damn blinking light.  It doesn’t tell me what type of notification it is, it doesn’t tell me if it’s important, and it doesn’t tell me if I’ve already read the email that it’s still bitching about or any other notification I already looked at hours ago.  It’s has 13 unread emails, but it doesn’t bother to notice that I’ve read all the emails it’s complaining about and just wasting my time again.

But that’s okay, because you still haven’t updated the search mechanism within Email so that I can search the content in the emails like a modern smartphone!  Draft emails seem to be hit or miss as well, as they only sometimes seem to go into the actual Draft folder.  And seriously, the period key so close to the Home button?  My thumb is literally the width of both the Home button and the period button.  In addition, I sometimes accidentally hit the Home button while trying to press the Return key or the space bar.  There’s a reason Google depreciated the damn physical buttons.

This rant airs out my grievances and frustrations, but let’s look at the bigger picture here.  This isn’t just bad design, this squanders time.  I would actually be more productive if I didn’t use your device at all, something that is supposed to increase my productivity.  If I’m taken as the average user, it’s wasting about half an hour of work time each day for me.  If I work 48 weeks a year (including vacation and holidays) with a standard five-day work-week, that’s 120 hours a year or three entire work-weeks wasted just from looking at my damn phone.  Extrapolate this out to a couple million users (an extremely conservative number for the entire HTC One/Mini/Max), that’s over 115,000 YEARS of people’s time that were wasted cumulatively in just one year.

Money can be earned again, but time is the one thing that can never be reclaimed.  In all that misplaced time, I wonder what people would have done with that what was lost on so basic a feature.  Would their work day have been shorter, would they have spent more time with their children, their loved ones, invented some new object, had a new idea, created something beautiful?  It’s a bastardization of what technology is supposed to do, bring people together and make lives easier.  This is why you don’t deserve my money or that of anyone else’s.


EDIT: Calendar notifications do show up on the main lock screen; however, emails still don’t.

Google giveth, and Google taketh + privacy in the US

The EFF: ‘Google Removes Vital Privacy Feature From Android, Claiming Its Release Was Accidental’

That feature I lauded?  Removed in 4.4.2.  We’ll still need to wait and see what comes of it, but keep in mind where most of Google’s revenue comes from.

Interesting argument: Why is Google the only player whose location privacy is lacking?  Even Windows Phone can disable location access after the fact, and iOS has had this ability for quite some time.  This is something that Android has always been behind on, but no one’s really called them out on it.

The ACLU has a concept about how location data could be used.  It is an interesting concept, especially seeing as how the US Fifth Circuit and Six Circuit have ruled that you do not need a warrant to use cellular location data. Money quotes from the Fifth Circuit ruling:

Their use of their phones, moreover, is entirely voluntary . . . . The Government does not require a member of the public to own or carry a phone.  As the days of monopoly phone companies are past, the Government does not require him to obtain his cell phone service from a particular service provider that keeps historical cell site records for its subscribers, either. And it does not require him to make a call, let alone to make a call at a specific location.

The Government disputes the assertion that cell phone users do not voluntarily convey location information. It contends that the users know that they convey information about their location to their service providers when they make a call and that they voluntarily continue to make such calls.

I do give kudos to Judge Dennis for dissenting and bringing up the interesting link between e911 and location awareness.  To be compliant with FCC regulations, the location of a user in an emergency must be determined within 50 to 300 meters, with the more precise requirements being 50 meters for 67 percent of calls and 150 meters for 95 percent of calls.

In the end, it comes down to the end users working together and demanding for better.  In the Play Store or any app store for that matter, give poor reviews to invasive applications who request access to things they don’t need, and push your OS manufacturer to show that privacy of the utmost importance.  Push for your cellular carriers to respect your privacy, and push legislators for change.  We need to change the stance from an implied expectation of privacy to a concrete form.

Some of you may remember this song from the Geico commercial, but I think it’s a good fit.

Privacy and the technologic age

In this day and age, privacy is a commodity to bought, traded, and sold.  Whether it’s the government tracking what you do or advertisers (who can also give that information to governments), someone knows more about you than you would think or like.

The US government has been tracking individuals worldwide with a program called Co-Traveler which is designed to track your location, and when you turn your phone on and off.  The last part is more interesting, as it opens up doorways to knowing who someone is without asking the phone company exactly who that is.

Let’s use myself as an example.  I currently use a prepaid carrier in the UK, and I’ve never had to hand over any information about myself.  Let’s assume for the moment that I used cash at the Heathrow airport for the SIM card as the vending machines allow that.  If I always pay in cash (which I happen to do out of convenience), any government might not have any idea of who I am in regards to my phone number.  Sure, they could check the security camera footage and try to match it to a database for visas, but that’s too complicated for what they could do.

If I know that a phone was turned off at an airport and turned back on at another airport, I could determine in theory which flight that person was on.  I could then get the flight manifest to determine which individuals were on that flight.  Let’s say the government doesn’t know a single person on the flight’s identity.  A best case scenario (or worst depending on your perspective) Boeing 747-400 can only hold 345 passengers, which immediately narrows down the number of people my phone could be.  An Airbus 318-100, on the other hand, can only seat thirty-two individuals and makes things far more trivial.  And with the longer I stay at the other location, the more distinct my phone number will be in terms of identifying an individual.

Let me explain.  The odds of the same person being on the exact same flight back are not unlikely at all, as I’ve seen some people both ways before.  However, the longer I stay, the more likely it is for the remaining individuals to have already returned or traveled to another destination (same with an extremely quick turnaround).  It would be entirely possible for one trip (one flight out and one flight back) to identify who I am in regards to my cell phone without having to determine who I am with the carrier.  This doesn’t even factor in the process of elimination that can be done along the way with identifying the other individuals on the flight.

Although it would take more effort, it could still be done without the other airport’s assistance (i.e. only Heathrow as an example), as long as it could be determined where I was on the runway and which aircraft was at the same location.  The most trustworthy information would when the aircraft landed and if the individual turned the phone off after the plane had pushed from the gate.

In private hands, a free application on Android called Brightest Flashlight was recording their user’s locations and passing on their location to advertisers even if you opted out.  Android finally brought in some location controls with 4.3, but it has the potential to break the application if it doesn’t have the proper permissions or even be an option to users of certain devices.  I myself am currently stuck at 4.2 because the company has not ordained an upgrade to my phone, so I cannot take advantage of it.  I truly appreciate iOS’s controls for information, as the application cannot carte-blanche decide it needs to know everything and break itself when it doesn’t get it.

In times of silliness, I like to imagine a sort of privacy stock market with different people’s information being traded on the open market.  There would be shares of myself and my information being clamored over, people shouting indiscriminately and the futures of information being bet on.  “We think he will make a large purchase soon that will allow us to track him even better than we can now, and are forecasting a 20% increase in information year-over-year.”  I can only imagine what dividends would be, perhaps a random fact that is useful or my current weight.

The phrase is that when something is free, you are the product and we are far too quick to give ourselves away.  After all, if it’s not tangible, it’s an endless commodity, right?  With the advent of technology that can tell us where we are whenever we like, we have to remember the other side of the coin: it can tell someone else where you are wherever you like.  Whether it’s someone targeting you for ads or a foreign or local government learning all of your secrets, we must be wary not to give up the essence of what makes us who we are: individuality and privacy.  It is most difficult for someone to misuse information they don’t have.

So, I’m going to be a Glasshole.

Have you ever wanted to strap a camera to your face and creep out passers-by while simultaneously distancing yourself from the people you care about?  I know I have.  So, I got the opportunity to purchase Google Glass and I went for it.  I’ll be getting it somewhat soon, and I’ll post my thoughts about it.

For now, do I think it’s the way of the future?  It’s an interesting question in itself.  The whole point of lock screen notifications is to determine information at a glance, and what could be easier than glancing up instead of pulling a phone out?  Why look at your wrist for a smartwatch when the information is already in front of you?

I really don’t think that this is the way of the future, unless it can be developed into something less ostracizing.  Regardless of whether it’s on or off, the person whom you would be having the conversation with would feel that you might not be paying attention.  Sure, the light from the display is visible from the other side so you know if it’s on or not. But, that doesn’t eliminate the sheer potential anticipation of some new tidbit of information, some delectable piece of information to feed our ever-growing need to be constantly entertained.  Did I see it flash?  Is it still on?  Maybe I missed something on the display, I should check.

There’s a really impressive video below which shows the potential down the line which I highly recommend.  We have the need to be constantly entertained, constantly looking at something.  Entire train rides and flights spent with people staring at their phones, tablets, and computers.  Google Glass blurs that line even further by constantly putting that information always within eyesight, always ever-present.  There’s technology, and then there’s technology designed with not only ergonomics but societal impacts.  Until Google Glass or some other device can address that in a manner that brings people closer together, I don’t think it can succeed.